1936’s My Man Godfrey is a Depression-era fantasy needling the rich
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Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Identity Thief has us thinking about movie characters operating under false identities.
My Man Godfrey (1936)
Most people operating under assumed identities in fiction (and in the rest of this week’s Watch This picks) are doing it for selfish reasons, from criminal plots to career chicanery. But the ’30s screwball comedy My Man Godfrey offers the rare spectacle of a man going undercover as a butler in a house full of daffy, obnoxious crazies for entirely altruistic reasons, which aren’t fully revealed until the climax. William Powell (playing another dashing, fast-talking variation on his role as Nick Charles in The Thin Man and its sequels) stars as a down-and-out hobo rescued from his home in the city dump when ditzy Carole Lombard comes looking for “a forgotten man” so she can win a high-society scavenger hunt. Once he agrees to join her so she can beat her catty, cruel sister (Gail Patrick) to the prize, Lombard decides to further rescue him by making him her butler. At least, that’s the initial story; it quickly turns out he’s playing along for his own reasons.
My Man Godfrey is a slick, quickly moving comedy that still plays elegantly today, though Lombard is an oddity in today’s cinema world: a Manic Pixie Dream Girl whose romantic interest doesn’t need rescuing, isn’t impressed by her antics, and repeatedly shuts her down. Powell’s mild, polite horror at her aggressive attempts to land him are perfectly poised for the tail end of the Depression: Much of the film is devoted to satirizing the wasteful, self-indulgent idiocies of the rich, from Lombard’s spoiled-brat behavior to Patrick’s cool, malicious evil to their mother’s freeloading live-in “protégé” Mischa Auer, reputedly an artist, though his greatest skill seems to be cavorting around performing ape impressions. Audiences got to laugh at the humiliations of foolish American aristocrats, but also revel in the fantasy of Powell, who starts the movie as a grubby, beaten-down garbage-picker, but after one shower and a change of clothing, transforms into a debonair man who’s smarter, more capable, and especially classier than his employers. It’s a Cinderella fantasy where Cinderella doesn’t need a fairy godmother to turn things around, just a shave, some skills, and a smirk.
Availability: Available on DVD in many editions, including a Criterion disc, and streaming via Amazon Prime and other services. Also streams free on Hulu and on YouTube.